*‘The best help for refugees comes from simple volunteers.’
‘The best help for refugees comes from simple volunteers.’'
Yonous Muhammadi is an Afghan refugee organizer. He speaks to Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Samir Dathi in Athens, Greece.
Refugees wait outside a police station, Aug.15, 2015, in the town of Kos in Greece. by Freedom House
Eleonas is in Athens and it is Greece’s first official, open reception centre for refugees. Living conditions for the 200 refugees are much better than in other reception centres in Greece. But it’s special because the refugees themselves organised it. In October 2015, hundreds of Afghan refugees were sleeping in a park. So the Greek government started Eleonas in an industrial area in Athens. But the refugees did not want to go there because of a long history of racism. Everyone thought Eleonas would be another detention centre like all the others.
Then the Greek Forum of Refugees decided to help. International groups are working together from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and more. They worked hard with the new refugees, and volunteered for months to make Eleonas what it is today: the most humane official camp in Greece.
The new EU-Turkey deal has started a lot of deportations. This is making it difficult for volunteers to look after refugees and their human rights. And so organisations led by refugees will be more important.
Yonous Muhammadi is the Forum’s president. He has worked with refugees in Athens for over ten years.
He left Afghanistan when he was at medical college in 1997. He supported refugee groups in Pakistan and later he went to Iran. In Iran he was a teacher at a secret school for “illegal” children and he risked imprisonment. He was imprisoned for trying to return to Afghanistan and he went to Greece, via Turkey, in 2001.
Younus has encouraged Afghan groups in Athens to organise. They joined other refugee groups in 2012 to become the Greek Forum of Refugees. It is now a strong organisation to help refugees.
How were the refugees in Greece in the winter?
This winter is very cold and it is very difficult. Refugees must still come to Greece via the Aegean Sea, and the EU will not even talk about safe, legal passage. The Greek authorities have also discriminated against volunteers. On the Greek islands, volunteers’ work is really important to help and keep refugees safe. The Greek authorities should thank them and not arrest them.
The situation at the Greek border is also a problem. Many people are at the border in freezing temperatures and they are not safe. A few people are robbing refugees. A refugee was killed.
People stopped at the border can return to Athens, but the situation is no better here. The official reception centres will only accept Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Eritreans, and Yemenis. Others must sleep on the streets or in parks with no help. Only unaccompanied children get help. Some people are arrested and taken to detention centres, where they are really afraid for their lives.
Tell us about conditions in the official ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers in Greece. In 2014, a lot of human rights groups said conditions were terrible. Is it still the same?
In 2014, there were more than 9,000 people in detention, even Syrians. Now there are not as many but conditions still do not meet the standards of human rights law. In September 2015, there was a hunger strike by refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The conditions are impossible! When you see it, you can’t believe how people can live there.
We hear about the poor conditions. Greek friends speak about it – but the problem is, when refugees are freed, they just want to leave because there is no trust in the authorities.
Before they reach Greece, the refugees have suffered so much. Police attack them so many times at the borders of Iran, at the borders of Turkey – everywhere.
And when they go the Greek police after attacks, the police do nothing. So if there is a law broken, most of the time they don’t want to speak about that. They just want to leave.
There are reports about abuses by the Greek authorities at the borders and how they send refugees back. The police say this is not true. What do you think?
Before 2014, they stopped and sent back a lot of refugees at the Evros land border with Turkey but also in the Aegean Sea around the Greek Islands. Sometimes refugees tried to cross seven times, but every time they were stopped and sent back very violently. There has also been sexual abuse. Things are still the same. The authorities send refugees back to Turkey and say: ‘Don’t come back to this border.’ People are attacked and robbed.
We know about these things but when we refugees are speaking, people do not believe us. The Greek authorities say they never send refugees back. But Human Rights Watch say the Greek authorities are sending refugees back. They are still sending people back at Evros, I can tell you that.
Big aid agencies have been in the Greek islands – UNHCR, Red Cross, UNICEF, and others. There were more at the end of 2015, but not as many as we would think with such a big problem. You’ve talked about the very important work by independent volunteers. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, the most important help comes from the simple volunteer organisations. People are organising themselves and trying to help. That is very important. There is no other reason behind this, they just want to help. So there is no money, no salary, nothing – just humanity.
Independent volunteers are the first people to come and rescue and welcome refugees. UNHCR and other organizations, with all their power, are helping less than ordinary people in places like the Greek island of Lesvos now.
There were Paris attacks by ISIS last November 2015. How do you think they have affected refugees in Greece and Europe?
People who are against refugees and migrants all over Europe are trying to use this to call all refugees terrorists. But they are running away from the terrorists in their own countries. And usually terrorists don’t use the refugee route. The families coming from Syria, from Afghanistan are the victims of terrorists.
We have had demonstrations against ISIS and the Taliban, to support the victims of terrorists in France. We can understand families’ sadness because we know this feeling well. All of us have lost someone. My 16-year-old brother and my cousin died in a terrorist attack. It should be clear that we are running away from them and fighting against them in every way we can.
What is it like to be an asylum seeker in Greece today?
Until 2014, there were attacks on refugees every day. In 2010, our offices were attacked by Golden Dawn. The asylum system is not helping. Some people wait ten years for a decision. They can’t plan for the future because they have so few rights. The Greek authorities do not support students. We often meet people studying without shelter or food. This is a real problem. The Greek authorities give no support to victims of torture, and trafficking.
What is the answer to the European Union’s refugee crisis?
The problem with the EU is that they always try to give their problems to each other. They do not share. I have been here more than 13 years and I am tired of this. Solidarity should be the responsibility of every country. No one wants to take the refugees in the same way that no one wants to leave their homes. The answer is to stop the wars! Why is there war in Syria? Why did I have to leave Afghanistan, for example?
The other important thing is for the countries that border Syria to work together. Not like they’re doing with Turkey – it wants EU money and membership and doesn’t care about the refugees. At the moment, all the decisions the EU and others make are for their own economic and geopolitical interests. We can find an answer, only if counties want to help the refugees. I don’t have much hope that it will stop. The West interferes in Afghanistan – not in my interests as an Afghan – and here we are, 13 years later, thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent and what is the result? We still hear of the Taliban taking cities and so thousands of people are running away.